FA Cup action today as we face Southampton at St Mary’s. It’s impossible to look at this game without also taking into account we face Southampton again on Tuesday in the Premier League, so I suspect this is a game in which Mikel Arteta will rotate a fair bit.
In terms of the team I’m accepting of the idea that we’re going to rotate for a couple of reasons. Firstly to give some players on the fringes time on the pitch. There’s a lot of football to play between now and the end of the season, and we need as many players as match-fit as possible. Fitness and form are very different things though, and one of the manager’s big challenges in the next few months is extracting some of the latter from individuals who have struggled in that regard.
The W word. Willian. He’s been awful, there’s no sugar-coating it, but I think he’ll play today. He is never going to be my favourite player or anything like that, but it would be to the collective benefit if he managed to be less awful and bit more like he was on that one fleeting day in an Arsenal shirt at the start of the season. He has to be capable of better at some stage, doesn’t he?
Similarly, Nicolas Pepe has been disappointing too this season, but in my book not as bad as Willian. He does have five goals and three assists to his name in all competitions, but every performance is held up against his price-tag – fairly or otherwise – and he too is someone capable of more than we’ve seen this season.
The manager spoke glowingly of Eddie Nketiah ahead of this game, ruling out a January loan departure despite how little he’s played of late. Will he get the nod today? It’s over a month since he last scored, but he’s hardly had any minutes in that period. Today could be an opportunity for him. Folarin Balogun played last night for the U23s and scored a hat-trick, so won’t be involved today.
Then there’s the need to bring Gabriel back into the fold, Dani Ceballos will fancy a game in midfield, and there are no shortage of options for Arteta to change things. Usually when we consider team selection we think primarily about what we want to see, but there are things I don’t want to see. Kieran Tierney is one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I love him, but he played in the last round against Newcastle, had to go 120 minutes and then missed our next league match which contributed to our poor display against Palace. With the potential for extra-time there again today (there are no replays this season), I’d rather see Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back, even if his display in his last outing there wasn’t great.
Similarly, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are too important in Premier League terms to start today. It’s not that they can’t play a role, and as we saw in the last round, their introductions helped the cause considerably, but we have to manage their fitness as best we can. It’s a tough one for Arteta, I get it. He knows that those three players are becoming increasingly crucial for this team and how it performs, but he has to find the right balance and also find a way to be effective without them. I suspect at least one of them might start though, and I suspect it’ll be Tierney so let’s hope it’s a beautifully freezing day on the South Coast so he can be in his element.
We know Southampton are a good side, we have very recent experience of them and the dangers they pose. Nevertheless, they’re in the same kind of boat, knowing they have to pick a team to get the job done today, as well as ensuring they have their strongest team available for Tuesday evening which, as much as I love the FA Cup, is the more important game in my opinion. It’ll be interesting to see how the managers approach this one, and what impact it has on the game itself.
Meanwhile, we had some classic out of the blue transfer action yesterday when, without days/weeks/months of rumours, stories, rodent or gonging percussion based Twitter accounts providing every tiny scintilla of information you never knew you needed, Mat Ryan signed on loan from Brighton.
The club have been seeking experienced cover for Bernd Leno during this window, and having fallen out of favour with the Seagulls, we made our move for a player who gives us just that. He’s 28, has plenty of first team football under his belt with Brighton and the Socceroos, and he provides some reassurance in the goalkeeping position that, with all due respect, we don’t have with Alex Runarsson (who is expected to go out on loan).
He’s also an Arsenal fan, which is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but which is still a nice sidebar to the story. He says:
I’m really proud, it’s great and it’s hard to sort of put into words the emotions and feeling that this is becoming a reality.
All those mornings as a young kid in Australia, getting up to watch the Champions League games and all that at four o’clock in the morning when I had school and these types of things. The support back in the Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp days, all these sorts of things, to now be here fills me with a great sense of pride and achievement.
Best of luck to him, and good luck too to Runarsson if and when he departs. As Ryan is not home-grown, I assume he’ll take the Icelandic’s place in the squad as and when we resubmit our lists for the Premier and Europa Leagues.
There are also stories linking us with Ryan Bertrand as cover for Kieran Tierney. He has less than 6 months left on his current deal with Southampton, which sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Here’s my thinking on this. It’s is precisely the kind of permanent deal we should not do. There is no justification for handing a contract of any duration to a player of his age, someone heading into the September/October of their career, and who has had a decent but unremarkable career.
If it’s 4 months of cover on loan, which gives us time to identify/source a younger player to compete with Tierney, or for the player we already have our eye on to be available in the summer market, then I think it’s something we could live with. But again, there’s just no justification for this to ever be anything other than a loan.
Right, let’s leave it there. Yesterday’s Arsecast is here, if you haven’t had a chance to listen already, while for Patreon members there’s a Martin Odegaard podcast available, chatting about the player and all the rest with Alex Kirkland (@alexkirkland) of The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast)
Catch you in a while for the game.